Regarding religious rituals

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes Updated January 18, 2009 12:00 AM

A few nights ago, I was having a conversation with some young people about religion and how they are completely turned off by it. From their point of view, religion means the Catholic faith and their aversion includes the Bible, the pope and the officials of the church, the obligation of going to mass and all of the attendant rules and requirements imposed on the flock.

I listened intently and, quite honestly, I was neither shocked nor surprised. I have heard many people express the same thing and I must confess I, myself, experience great doubts about my own faith from time to time as it was taught to me when I was growing up.

Many of the younger generation that have been raised in a technological age of instant gratification and dominance of scientific thought over religious dogma find no attraction nor need for membership in an organization whose core beliefs science regards with suspicion (and vice versa, I might add). Although they went to Catholic schools, they find no connection with much of the religion that was taught to them.

The young man in the group said he did not believe in the veracity of the Bible because it contains, in terms of evidence as defined by the modern world, a lot of hearsay. He noted that the truthfulness of a lot of biblical facts would be found faulty if subjected to rigorous scientific investigation.

The young lady noted that a lot of the accounts in the Bible contradict one another and the morality in some stories is — by today’s reckoning — quite abhorrent. In the Bible, slavery, polygamy, revenge, the smiting of one’s enemies were practiced — all, apparently, with God’s blessings.

There’s a lot I could agree with in their views, taken at face value. As scientific or historical accounts of events, the texts of many religions leave much to be desired. However, Joseph Campbell, an erudite writer on myths, maintains that to look at religious texts as scientific or historically accurate is to miss out on their meaning completely. He points out that religious text, when taken literally, loses its power. Literalness and materialism belong to the domain of science, after all.

The strength of religious stories and text lies in their symbolic meanings. Symbols are open-ended, rich in interpretation and one can get lost in them while plumbing their depths. At their heart is mystery, often unfathomable, and the truths they express go way beyond what words can express.

God begetting a human, or the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove are two such moving mysteries, even if not uniquely Christian themes, Campbell points out. He explains that similar themes have existed in other, earlier religions. He says the order of the day was the adaptation by Christianity of many themes and symbols prevalent during that time. These themes and metaphors made them acceptable to the unconverted. This did not necessarily diminish their power. In fact, faith may have been enhanced by them.

Personally, I feel that the paradoxical nature of a God born in a manger instead of a palace who teaches mankind to turn the other cheek and love his enemies is a very powerful message. It dangles before us a world order that is so revolutionary that heaven may not have to wait for us to die to be experienced.

While I could see the validity in a lot of what the kids had to say, it was my turn to ask them if they had any fascination or yearning to understand the mysteries of life and love. Did they ever ponder the question of the afterlife? Did they ever wonder whether man could ever find a meaning in the states of suffering, pain, joy and happiness that humanity seems to swing back and forth between? Did they ever look at the horizon and wonder if there was a power that created everything? They answered in the affirmative. They admitted that, certainly, there was much to ruminate on and seek to understand if one was to find his place in the universe.

While the kids may seem atheistic from the point of view of organized religion, in my view, they are undoubtedly spiritual for the simple reason that these questions do matter in their lives. While there are people who prefer to walk the straight, narrow and sure path that their parents trod along terms of religion, there are some who like to carve their own path to heaven.

Like the kids I talked to, sometimes, I hear adults complain that they, too, are having a hard time finding meaning in the age-old rituals of religious ceremonies. So much of the rituals seem tired and stale, needing major makeovers. I sometimes ask myself if it isn’t the role of the messengers of the different faiths — the priests, deacons, priestesses, shamans, gurus, evangelists, rabbis, etc. — to summon the great mysteries, the timeless stages and themes of life such as birth, death, sex, love, oneness and meaning so that their followers feel alive to them, and awakened to their timeless truths.

William Ernest Hocking, an American philosopher, wrote, “No religion is a true religion that does not make men tingle to their fingertips with a sense of infinite hazard.” This is a reminder to those who perform rituals about the danger and reality of lost potency in how they invoke the mysteries.

If the quote above is true, then to know God is to experience Him in a way that will rock one’s world. But what happens when you can no longer summon the thrill?

It may seem sacrilegious to make the comparison but when you look around, you will find a lot of peak experiences in modern but secular rituals that actually point to the direction of the mysteries, without expressly mentioning sacred deities. There may be something to learn here that can revitalize the energy of churchgoers.

When people sing, groove, sway and wave their hands in unison during a rock concert, isn’t it an expression of partaking in a larger community, or even a sense of oneness? Doesn’t being one with everybody else in a certain place or event create the feeling that one is “bigger than life”? Isn’t the performer enactging a ritual that invokes the experience of power among the audience? Could that, as secular as it may seem, be within the realm of a spiritual experience?

I am convinced that the success of social networking on the Internet with such sites as Facebook, Myspace and others comes from the fact that its members experience closeness or intimacy with other people. The interaction has many facets: an identification with an “other” or “others,” a fascination, a thrill in being able to communicate and exchange thoughts with people from everywhere, even with people you do not know. One might say the virtual community is also an experience of shared oneness.

The thrill of watching or participating in sports has an element that defies man’s limitations that may border on a spiritual experience. The very power of an athlete in breaking world records stretches the meaning of what it is to be alive and human. There is a feeling of being greater than one can imagine oneself to be. It is absolutely joyous and inspiring to see someone defy limitations. Think about it: Doesn’t this seem to be within the territory of experiencing what a miracle is like?

Religions, too, incorporate the pull of the large ritual, the extravaganza to keep their flock excited and inspired. Think of World Youth Day, the Haj, the seasons of Christmas and Eid-Al-Fitr. The crowds, the ritualized movement, chanting, singing aren’t too different from the opening of the Super Bowl, the Olympics, or a U2 concert.

Could it be that the kids these days get their share of spiritual sustenance outside the churches without their knowing it? What a concept. And if true, what an opening for religion to exploit!

After all, isn’t God supposed to be everywhere all the time?

* * *

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Craig Peihopa
12 years ago

Jim, I have on many occasions looked at a sunrise, sunset or a storm and marveled with gratitude at the author of such beauty and majesty! I am not one of those who believe that God / religion should be seen just for those peak feelings or sensory satisfactions, though I submit they do occur.

For me, true religion lives in the examples of humble people who help the sick, the poor, or others generally, when there is no benefit to the helper (as in the biblical account of the Good Samaritan) the Samaritan being the only one who helped, after others had passed the beaten and robbed victim by- when it was not in the “common” experience of a samaritan to do such an act. Again, a contrasting view that simply and humbly defies the norm or common expectation. People who help others do so out of a sense of love for another being, out of care and concern and out of love for God. My thoughts drift to the selfless work and care I have seen from Nuns in the Philippines and other parts of the world, aid workers in struggling nations and so on.

I have personally seen many special “angels”, people who sometimes at great risk did as the Savior himself once did, served others. Just as the manger breaks down perceptions of what we imagine a God would be born into, I believe that we one day will see that we have been part of a something too wonderful for our present understanding and we will observe with gratitude that he (God) allowed us the free agency to come to know Him and that the teachings and examples the scriptures contain, transcend science, not dismiss it, they reach into the very core essence of what it is to be human, to be alive and to truly become the children of God he would have us be. My belief is that if we subject the bible to chronological or scientific scrutiny we will miss the simplicity of the message found in John altogether. ” A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you”

sorry for being a bit too long.

Vanette C.
Vanette C.
12 years ago

Hi Jim,More than twenty years ago, I left my birth religion to jump into the born again movement…that’s because my mother in law asked me to attend to some of the meetings which got me hooked…..I was the epitome of a perfect wife and obedient daughter-in-law (hahaha! I think)..always being the submissive wife (Ephisians 5:22) and someone with ‘gentle and quiet spirit’ (1Peter3:4)…Fast forward twenty years or so later, I am out of that box of dogmas…I AM FREE!…i have been set out by truths! hahahah!

See?! even if I didn’t take your ‘tapping in the universe’ you have what Rhonda Byrne’s described in ‘the secret’ which is the “the law of attraction!” From then on, I was like an investigator, drowning myself in religion, spritiuality and neuro science– I still think Ken Wilber is wierd. He’s 5 kilometers below sea level is what I think of him–that deep!

Reading your column today has just confirmed all the more about my quest for meaning. And am sure that the young man who thinks that the veracity of the bible is hearsay is indeed true. Try to get hold of Karen Armstrongs “History of God” and it tells how all these religions came to be. VEry interesting and a good read! As Sam Harris said, ‘ I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core belief.”

You wrote, “they find no connection with much of the religion that was taught to them.” No wonder we have such corruption in our country. The morals they teach us in school, are not practiced in the real world because they do not see it. Let the young man read “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris and it will confirm his beliefs.

You also mentioned about “The very power of an athlete in breaking world records stretches the meaning of what it is to be alive and human.’ according to Parker Palmer in his book ‘The Active Life” he says, “How can I know what I think until I hear myself say it,” With this frame of thought, Christians or any athlete will do whatever needs to be done to be called such, thus the rituals and competitions.

let me end with a poem by Chuan Tzu, a 4th century B.C. taoist teacher as translated by Thomas Merton


if an expert does not have some problems to vex him, he is unhappy!
If a philosopher’s teaching is never attacked, she pines away
If critics have no one on whom to excercise their spite, they are unhappy
All such people are prisoners in the world of objects

He who wants followers, seek political power.
She who wants reputation, holds an office.
The strong man looks for weights to lift.
The brave woman looks for an emergency in which she can shower bravery.
The swordsman wants a battle in which he can swing his sword.
People past their prime prefer a dignified retirement, in which they may seem profound.
People experienced in law seek difficult cases to extend the applications of laws.
Liturgists and musicians like festivals in which they parade their ceremonial talents.
The benevolent, the dutiful, are always looking for chances to display virtue.

Where would the gardener be if there were no more weeds?
What would become of business without a market of fools?
Where would the masses be if there were no pretext for getting jammed together and making noise?
What would become of labor if there were no superfluous objects to be made?

Produce! Get results! Make money! Make friends! Make changes!
Or you will die of despair!

P.S. as I was writing this comment, my husband Mike was wondering what I was writing about. I had to show him your column — which he read for the very first time. I was glad that he liked it and said you write very well. And he aggrees in what you wrote. Good job!

Mr. Thoughtskoto
12 years ago

I believe that He organized a Church for people who needs nourishment, for sinners like me to be cleansed, for people to gather and strengthen one another. Regardless of what faith we subscribe and what name of the God we worship, Religion or a church should lead people to do good. Charles Dickens says ” Remember, it is Christianity to do good always.” Religious rituals are symbolisms, that unless you understood the spiritual meaning and believe that it actually transpire or happen will only be a burden to you and your time. I spend my Sundays/Fridays more than 3 hours in a church worshipping or learning about the Gods and how to better my life. But I didn’t complain because it is the time that I am spiritually nourished and revitalized and sustained.

12 years ago

Hi Mr. Jim… Just visiting your blog. 🙂

And I must say, I don’t consider myself really that religious but I do believe I’m spiritual. To others, it may not make sense but it does to me. And it’s true that when we do try to look at out faith literally (bible-based and all), it does lose its meaning and purpose. I do love my papa God and He will always be my papa God… that’s the best relationship I can have with Him I think and I feel that He constantly reminds me that He’s part of my daily life thru the wonderful people around me. 🙂

12 years ago

what if indeed this search for sprirituality and enlightenment is just a problem of our own creation (e.g., U.G. Krishnamurti)? what if there’s no special meaning, and that zen practice is about moving away from concerns for self to naturally move to concerns for others (e.g., Charlotte Joko Beck)? what if we’re already authentic as we are and that as soon as we drop our fixation with “self” we become aware (e.g., Charles Bentley) and fulfilled inspite of life’s shortcomings? sounds like selflessness is the key. and many religions do promote it, but not without the promise of reward or punishment attached to it, and that’s when i start to have my doubts about religions.

i agree with Campbell’s view of the bible as a mythology. but many people who read the bible don’t treat it as such, and believe the writings to be of actual historical events. i think that the scientific investigations are in response to these arguments of people who take the bible literally. me, i believe in the mythology of Star Trek 🙂 among others. there are many such good stories and messages to live by and i can imagine them being very limited or not easily accessible in the old days and that’s why they were spread mostly by word of mouth in a gathering and via rituals. today’s kids have access to teachers, coaches, books, blogs like this (and Ala’s), philosophers, life’s lessons at the touch of a button. hence, less bible-reading, church-going, praying/chanting, less of such types of rituals. nothing intrinsically wrong with that i think, just humans adapting and moving on as usual.

sorry, long too. it’s quite an involved topic.

12 years ago

The question I think the right question to ask is whether one knows the difference between being religious and being spiritual. Most people would struggle to understand the difference as I suspect most people muddle the two concepts together in their mind.

That said, I think Catholicism and most organised religion are quite simple in essence:

They all promise nothing in life and everything in death.

Convenient isn’t it?

Because anything that lies beyond death is beyond the reach of scientific explanation and beyond the reach of anything the living could ever fathom, religion has pretty much given itself an undebatable fundamental assertion.

I also make the case that Catholicism has devalued Jesus Christ — the man — by attributing to him a divinity and enforcing and spreading his word by the sword; thus:

The Church as an “institution” in all ironies has actually devalued him as a man (as one of us) by attributing to him a “divinity” that remains debatable to this day.

The value of Jesus Christ’s objective and tangible contributions to humanity was severely diluted by a humungous layer of convoluted dogma and mystic jibberish that is administered by that embodiment of conflicts-of-interest that is the Catholic Church.

Whereas men such as Albert Einstein and Plato stand timelessly on the robustness of their own personal achievement, Jesus Christ was deprived of his chance to stand among them upon the same sort of footing by a Church that presumed to enforce reverence for him through the sword and through the use of principles of clever marketing. Thus Christ will be known not as the man and not for his mind but as a mere iconic centre of an “institution” that today is rapidly making itself irrelevant and pulling down the great man with it.

And we wonder why the youth are starting to become disillusioned with religion.

The issue is simple.

Catholicism is inherently internally-inconsistent. You can see this in the way “theologians” struggle to backward-engineer some form of logic from “holy” scripture.

12 years ago

Spirituality is experiential; religion is dogma-ritual. Christianity has evolved from spiritual experience/way of life to dogmas and rules. Over its 2,000 years, Christianity has shifted its focus from the message to the messenger. Sad to state, in the Western world, a significant decline in church attendance amongst the youth is quite evident. It’s no wonder that the trend will continue in the generations to come.

12 years ago

Jim, fixed this for you:

“Could it be that the kids these days get their share of spiritual sustenance outside the churches without their knowing it? What a concept. And if true, what an opening for religion to exploit what’s the point of going to church?

Requesting permission to play devil’s advocate here: I agree with a lot of your insights, but the conclusions I draw from these are very different.

Sure, a lot of people ponder the mysteries of life. But why assume that any religion is better equipped to answer them? Can’t they also be dealt with in a strictly secular sense? Off the top of my head, good examples include Julia Sweeney ( and Penn Jillette. (

Maybe the framework of religion is actually unnecessary. Qua Joseph Campbell, if those insights may be drawn from any story, and not just from any sacred text, then why hold these texts sacred in the first place? Why shouldn’t we consider insights taken from, say, to Kill a Mockingbird just as good (if not better) than any taken from the Bible?

For those who *do* hold to the ancient traditions, I’m not arguing you should reject them entirely. I’m talking to those who Jim addresses in the very first paragraph – the disillusioned exiles of traditional religions. My message is this: we’re free to find our own answers in other texts and other insights, without being bound to (or “exploited” by) Catholicism, Buddhism, or any other “ism”.

I guess I’m saying that Jim’s essay offers a multiple choice answer to “what is the meaning of life”, but by not including “none of the above”, the essay doesn’t go far enough.

12 years ago

Hi Jim,

I too like contemplating the meaning of life, the origin of the universe and so on. The more I ponder these things however the less I become religious. Simply because religion doesn’t offer any satisfying answer. Earlier in life I was even told that I must have lots of idle time to be having such thoughts and we all know who’s playground idle hands are.
Its only when I come across sophisticated priests, with time to spare, that I have a chance at a gratifying conversation. But these occasions are getting fewer and fewer and far in between. Your standard garden variety priest, however well intentioned they are, will just run you a script… at times it really feels like talking to an album.
Having said this I do acknowledge the relevance and importance of religion. It is a very efficient way of organizing and mobilizing people. And religion deals with social issues that cannot yet be adequately address by government, industry and commerce. NGOs comes close but they don’t have the staying power of religion.
Perhaps Joseph Campbell is right, by ignoring the symbolism we miss out on a wealth of knowledge. However I think these symbolism pertains more to the culture and the times that bore and effect these religion… not necessarily a greater truth.

Bass Poet
Bass Poet
12 years ago

Hi Sir Jim,

I believed the most important is our posture, state and stance of our souls – being really present to the NOW. Being spiritual graceful is being really alive and present to our lives. Our religious rituals , beliefs and attributes are not the essence of who we really are – the spirit is. We must go beyond living in the “Law and Order” of the present times and move on living in the “Will and Grace”. I just remember that “Jesus said, It is not the letter of the law but the spirit of the law.”.


Bass Poet